April 28, 1995
Don't Quote Me

Suffer the children

In their rush to re-examine the Fells Acres child-abuse case, the media risk harming the real victims: the children, now teenagers, who were forced to participate in unspeakable acts.

by Dan Kennedy

If nothing else, Dorothy Rabinowitz's searing op-ed piece on the Fells Acres Day School case, published in the Wall Street Journal on January 30, demonstrated the power of a major news organization to set the agenda for other media.

Headlined "A Darkness in Massachusetts," Rabinowitz's column put forth a startling assertion: that Violet Amirault and her adult children, Gerald "Tooky" Amirault and Cheryl LeFave, convicted nearly 10 years ago of sexually abusing kids at their Malden day-care center, were the innocent victims of "a miscarriage of justice -- if one can use so bland a term for so horrific a tragedy."

Six days later, the Boston Sunday Globe devoted a full page of its Focus section to a reprint of her column and a response by Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who as Middlesex district attorney in the mid 1980s oversaw the Amiraults' prosecution.

The Globe, the Boston Herald, and the Amiraults' hometown paper, the Malden Observer, published follow-up stories. The Journal continued the crusade it had started, running a second column on the case by Rabinowitz, launching a legal-defense fund for the Amiraults, and, in an editorial, calling on Governor Bill Weld to commute their sentences. The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and ABC's 20/20 are said to be preparing reports. New York lawyer Dan Williams, who took the case after Rabinowitz's first column appeared, says he's heard from CBS's 60 Minutes and 48 Hours as well.

Says Rabinowitz, who's now preparing her third piece: "This is a spreading stain, and it does not go away. Once these things come out they can't be shaken. It can't be suppressed. They can't ride it out."

What Rabinowitz has touched off is nothing less than a media feeding frenzy. Fells Acres is a dark, ugly tale that's lost none of its power over the past 10 years. Investigators said that upwards of 40 children were abused at the day-care center, which Violet Amirault owned and at which her children worked. Not only were three-, four-, and five-year- old kids claiming they'd been molested, but they were also saying they'd been threatened with harm to their parents if they told anyone. Nevertheless, on Labor Day weekend, in 1984, word began to trickle out. Within days it was on page one.

Nine children testified at Gerald's trial in 1986, and at Violet's and Cheryl's trial the following year. Rabinowitz's contention, that an elderly mother and her two adult children are rotting in prison because they were victimized by a hysteria reminiscent of "the witch trials of an earlier Massachusetts," adds a compelling new twist to a story that's never quite gone away.

But wait. Rabinowitz has raised no new issues, produced no new evidence. Her principal arguments -- that the children were asked leading questions by overly aggressive investigators, and that they spun fantastic tales that couldn't possibly have been true -- were dealt with at length by two judges, two juries, tough-minded defense attorneys, and, ultimately, by the state's Supreme Judicial Court. In every instance, the Amiraults were found to have been fairly tried and fairly convicted. The children, in most cases, disclosed what happened to them voluntarily, in their own words. In the end, 24 jurors agreed unanimously with the prosecution that the kids' stories of evil robots and 12-inch knives were their imperfect attempts to explain acts and threats no child should have to deal with.

Rabinowitz calls what happened to the Amiraults a "tragedy." A tragedy did indeed take place at Fells Acres, but the Amiraults were not the victims. The danger is that the real victims -- the children, now teenagers -- will be victimized again, as the media, weighing the musty clippings of the past against the persistent, articulate claims of innocence advanced by Rabinowitz, the Amiraults, and their supporters, will join those calling for a new investigation of crimes already investigated thoroughly and in good faith.

"At the time there was immense coverage of all these issues," says Harshbarger, angry indignation in his voice. "Why is this coming back? People are forgetting the victims here. This is pack journalism. This is absolutely irresponsible in my view. People do not want to believe that the Amiraults, a middle-class family, could do this to children. And they did, in my opinion. It was proven by any legal standard we have in this country.

"Is there justice? Is there any finality to these cases?"

Donna was ticked off. It was September 12, 1984, and state officials had just closed the Fells Acres Day School. Here she was, a single mother struggling to get by, and suddenly she had no place to leave her four- year-old daughter during the workday.

So she wasn't inclined to believe the cops when they told parents about allegations of sexual abuse at the day-care center. She asked her daughter, Stacy, a few general questions. Stacy said no, nothing was bothering her, she liked school. As far as Donna was concerned, that was it.

But a few days later, while Donna was at work, her boyfriend called and told her she'd better come home: Stacy had just told him that "Cheryl" had taken pictures of her while she was naked, and that "Miss Vi" had told her that if she said anything, "you'll spoil the rotten game."

Donna went to the police. A social worker and a cop came to the house; Donna and her boyfriend listened in the next room while the social worker talked with Stacy. The girl was asked to draw, and she produced a picture of a "good clown." She then asked the social worker to draw the "bad clown."

"There was a bad clown?" the social worker asked.


The adult proceeded to draw. When she'd finished, she asked Stacy, "Is there anything else I need to draw?"

"Yes," came the little girl's response. "His penis." She added that the "bad clown" would make her touch his penis.

At that point the social worker produced an anatomically correct, but fully clothed, male doll and asked Stacy to demonstrate how she touched the clown's penis.

"Stacy pulled down his pants and put her mouth on the penis," says Donna. "There were not any leading questions asked. There was no coercion."

Donna and Stacy are pseudonyms. More than 10 years after that awful day, they're still trying to recover, and they fear that public exposure will destroy their peace. It's a fragile, tenuous peace: Stacy, 14, tried to commit suicide last year, despite years of therapy. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress syndrome.

"We put this behind us and got on with our lives as best we could," Donna says. "And here it is again, staring us in the face."

Larry Hardoon is dark, wiry, intense. A decade ago he prosecuted the Amiraults. Now he's a private attorney in Boston who represents victims of sexual abuse. During a lengthy interview, the frustration comes pouring out -- frustration over having to retry in the media a case he tried successfully in court nearly a decade ago, frustration over having to compete with the persuasive, elegantly written screeds Dorothy Rabinowitz has put before millions of readers.

"To re-examine the case in this cursory way is really unfair to the parents and the children," he says. "If there was something new that was being presented, then so be it. Then it would be justified. But every single point that has been raised by Rabinowitz was responded to during the trials in a far more meaningful way than can be done in soundbites or interviews."

To date, the most thorough attempt to analyze the claims of Rabinowitz and other Amirault supporters was a March 19 piece by Charlie Sennott on the front of the Boston Sunday Globe. But Sennott, straining to be objective, gave their wispy arguments more credence than they deserved. The issues they have raised were decided long ago. Indeed, Sennott contacted six of the jurors, and all said they stuck by their verdicts.

Nevertheless, Hardoon acknowledges that Rabinowitz has created an atmosphere of doubt. Her charges, taken out of context, are clearly disturbing.

* Leading questions. Rabinowitz and other supporters of the Amiraults accuse investigators of using leading questions and cajolery to force the children to tell untrue tales of sexual abuse. They point primarily to videotaped interviews conducted by pediatric nurse Susan Kelley in which Kelley was clearly seen pressuring the children into telling her what she wanted to hear.

But Hardoon says virtually all of the children disclosed what had happened to them under circumstances similar to those related by Donna. Kelley was called in toward the end of the investigation to videotape the children's stories for possible use in court, he says. She leaned hard on the children, he adds, because she had a limited amount of time with each one and in most cases knew what they had already disclosed.

Hardoon concedes the interviews were improperly conducted and ineffective. But he says the jurors clearly understood that the children had disclosed what had happened to them much earlier. More important, all but one child testified in person.

Perhaps half of the parents, he adds, were hostile to the prosecution "until their child made some disclosure to them." There are many examples, but one stands out in his mind: a little girl who tried to insert a shampoo bottle into her vagina, and then told her parents that that's what "Tooky" did to her.

In her first column, Rabinowitz quoted from the transcript of one of the interviews, in which a young girl repeatedly told a persistent interviewer that her friend was lying about "the clown" forcing her and other girls to take off their clothes in "the magic room." Wrote Rabinowitz: "No sane person reading the transcripts of these investigations can doubt the wholesale fabrications of evidence on which this case was built."

Yet Boston Globe staffer Paul Langner, who covered both trials and saw the tape, remembers watching the child scream, dive into a chair, and hide her face in the cushions. "The body language is totally dissonant from what the child says," he recalls. "She says no, but she clearly wants to say yes." He adds that he finds it difficult to fathom the revival of media interest in the case: "They are dredging up stuff that was disposed of a long time ago. Why doesn't the media trust any more than it does in the judicial process?"

* Bizarre testimony. The Amiraults' supporters point to the surreal nature of some of the children's testimony. Among the most graphic examples: two kids who talked about a robot that would hurt them if they refused to cooperate; a child who said he was tied naked to a tree in full view of his classmates and teachers; and a young girl who said she was penetrated with a 12-inch knife, yet who suffered no injuries.

Hardoon admits there are some aspects of the children's testimony that investigators will never fully understand. "At no time did any of us think a 12-inch knife had been inserted into a child," he says. "The child is describing her perception of the reality." Likewise, the robot and the tree-tying incident could have been threats or passed-on stories that became real in the children's minds.

Barry Crimmins is a writer who's become an anti-abuse activist since recovering his long-suppressed memory of being repeatedly raped by a neighbor when he was two years old. He says fantastic tales are not unusual, and often turn out to have a surprising element of truth.

For instance, Crimmins cites a case in which a child said he'd been abused in a spaceship. Authorities were skeptical until they visited the suspect's basement, and found he'd covered the walls with tinfoil and flashing lights. In a German case, a suspect's lawyers discredited a child's testimony because of his insistence that he was threatened by lions and bears. "Then they found the lion and bear suits," Crimmins says.

"When children speak in hyperbolic terms it's always used against them," Crimmins adds. "I think a lot of people are crusading not to have to know about this stuff."

* Unsubstantiated porn claims. No evidence was ever unearthed to support the prosecution's claim that the Amiraults were running a child-pornography ring. Indeed, investigators did not search Fells Acres until several weeks after the case broke, not realizing until too late the full extent of the allegations. That time lag gave the Amiraults ample opportunity to destroy any evidence.

The flip side, notes Norfolk assistant district attorney John Birtwell, who covered the women's trial for the Herald, is that it would have been enormously helpful to the Amiraults' defense if police had searched the school immediately and turned up nothing. (Birtwell nevertheless says he found the children's testimony "believable.")

Thus, the child-porn angle remains a troubling loose end. But Hardoon points to one strong piece of evidence: virtually all of the children talked about being photographed while penetrated with pens, pencils, "magic wands," sticks, forks, and knives. "I was completely puzzled," he says. Then he examined samples of hard-core child pornography and saw photos of kids being penetrated in exactly the manner the Fells Acres children had described.

"I had what I would almost describe as a revelation," Hardoon says. "I was astounded to see them describe something so bizarre, and then to see it confirmed in the real world."

* Lack of injuries. Few of the children suffered injuries that could be directly linked to sexual abuse. Hardoon, though, says that studies show a majority of kids who've been sexually abused show no physical signs. Even so, four of the nine kids who testified, he says, had injuries consistent with abuse.

* Uncharged suspects. Some of the children named other suspects, mostly teachers, yet those suspects were not charged. "The State had chosen, as the theme of its sensational case, a story of a dark family conspiracy," Rabinowitz wrote in her second column. "It was a story, clearly, in which other teachers -- family outsiders -- had no place."

Hardoon replies that the evidence concerning the other suspects did not meet the "threshold level" needed to bring charges. In addition, child- development experts told him children might have been accusing people other than the actual perpetrators because they wanted to disclose what had happened to them, but had been intimidated by the threats made against them by the Amiraults. "We are not excluding the possibility of other people being involved," Hardoon says.

So who is Dorothy Rabinowitz?

She's a veteran journalist and conservative essayist who's written media criticism for the New York Post and political essays for Commentary. Rabinowitz joined the Wall Street Journal five years ago. She believes the Amiraults were caught up in the witch-hunt atmosphere of the mid 1980s, when a number of similar cases, most famously that of the McMartin Preschool, in California, were making headlines.

As a reporter in the '80s for WWOR-TV, in Secaucus, New Jersey, Rabinowitz took up the cause of Kelly Michaels, a New Jersey child- care provider who was convicted of sexually abusing her young charges. In 1993, after Michaels had served five years in prison, a New Jersey appeals court overturned her conviction, finding the children's testimony was obtained through the use of coercive, leading questions -- which is precisely what Rabinowitz believes happened to the Amiraults.

"I don't like this role," Rabinowitz insists. "I'm not a rescuer, I'm a journalist." She says she wrote about the Amiraults only after failing to persuade other reporters to do so. To her, it is eminently clear that the Amiraults were caught in a conspiracy: a web of stereotypical stories about evil clowns, injuries and deaths for which there is no evidence, and animal torture, suggested to impressionable children by biased investigators who exchange ideas regularly with their peers around the country.

She blames the media for not pursuing inconsistencies in the case: "I have read every word of the coverage. It is mind-bogglingly infuriating."

Rabinowitz drafted Dan Williams, the New York lawyer who won Michaels's freedom, to represent the Amiraults. He's filed a motion for a new trial in Middlesex Superior Court on the thinnest of technicalities. He argues that because the children who testified were allowed to face the jury and the judge rather than the defendants, the Amiraults were deprived of the right to face their accusers.

Williams admits people would have cause to be angry if child molesters were freed on such grounds. But he insists the Amiraults are innocent, and says his motion is the strongest legal argument he has at his disposal.

Besides, Williams says he has new evidence. Studies conducted in the past few years, he says, show children are far more suggestible than had previously been thought. Those studies, he's convinced, will demonstrate that the leading questions he believes the Fells Acres children were asked could not possibly have led to truthful answers.

"When you take what I like to call a psychological rubber hose to the child, it's just a recipe for disaster," Williams says.

Yet children's advocates say the types of studies Williams cites are riddled with errors, and represent the same kind of so-called junk science they themselves are often accused of perpetuating. Hardoon keeps in his files psychological studies that show children typically will not disclose genital touching unless they're specifically asked about it, that their answers are accurate in the overwhelming majority of cases, that children rarely give in to suggestions that something sexual took place when it did not, and that their memories are strikingly accurate even when they're interviewed months later.

The question of memory is crucial, because the Fells Acres case has gotten caught up in the debate over recovered memory, the notion that adults can suddenly remember abuse that took place years earlier. A cottage industry has developed that's devoted to debunking the idea, even though trauma-induced amnesia, such as that suffered by some war veterans, has long been recognized. Fells Acres would seem to have nothing to do with recovered memory, but the case has attracted some of the same activists, who argue that all of the major day-care cases -- Fells Acres, McMartin, Kelly Michaels -- were marred by overzealous investigators who essentially implanted the children with fictitious memories. Clearly they hope to capitalize on a social climate in which claims such as those made by the Fells Acres children tend to be evaluated more skeptically than they were a decade ago.

Among the Amiraults' supporters, for instance, is Mark Pendergrast, a Vermont-based writer whose most recent book, Victims of Memory, grew out of his adult daughter's accusation that he had molested her when she was a child. Pendergrast devotes a section of his book to the Amiraults, and insisted, in an interview, that they are victims of hysteria. He remembers visiting Gerald Amirault in prison two years ago. "The story he told was quite horrifying," Pendergrast says. "I got hold of the court transcripts, and they were even more horrifying."

Pendergrast is an interesting character. He boasts that he nudged Rabinowitz, citing a letter he wrote to her about the Amiraults' plight, and says he's "a little frustrated because I haven't gotten any credit for this." He hastens to add: "And God bless her." Boston Globe staffer Shelley Murphy, who covered Gerald Amirault's trial when she was at the Herald, charges that Pendergrast "misrepresented himself" when he interviewed her for his book by failing to disclose his personal stake in the recovered-memory debate. Pendergrast concedes the point, saying he couldn't have conducted his research otherwise.

Like the Amiraults' other supporters, Pendergrast insists the children must have been prompted, perhaps by "inadvertent cueing," to provide the tales of sexual abuse that investigators sought. When the gist of Donna's recollection of her daughter's disclosure was read to Pendergrast, he dismissed it instantly, claiming the girl must have been pressured into telling investigators things that never happened. "You're talking about memories over 10 years old," he says.

Then there's Jonathan Harris, a chemistry professor at MIT who's made a hobby of disparaging child-sexual-abuse cases. He runs a mailing list on the Internet devoted to what he calls "witch hunt" cases. His Witch Hunt Information Center includes several pieces he's written on the Amiraults, information about Kelly Michaels and other cases, and lengthy excerpts from courttranscripts. He's also in regular touch with Rabinowitz and Pendergrast.

Harris has tried to place his essays on the Amiraults in a number of publications, including the Phoenix and the Globe. Indeed, Rabinowitz refers to Harris's encounter with the Globe in her first column, quoting an editor as telling Harris, "I sent two reporters to cover the story at the time and they said the Amiraults were weirdos." The Globe's editorial- page editor, David Greenway, says he investigated that claim as soon as Rabinowitz's column appeared, and could find no evidence that such an exchange took place. Greenway adds he rejected Harris's piece because it was unsubstantiated advocacy by a writer with no journalistic credentials or special expertise.

Harris insists the "weirdo" conversation occurred, and says it's characteristic of the media's coverage of the Amiraults: "They basically bought everything the prosecution said."

It's understandable why the Amiraults are seen by some as sympathetic figures. If they're innocent, then they are indeed the victims of a nightmarish tragedy. Gerald Amirault, now 42, is not yet halfway through a 40-year sentence at the Plymouth County Correctional Institution. Violet Amirault, 71, and Cheryl LeFave, 37, are serving 20-year sentences at the state's prison for women, in Framingham. Both would be likely candidates for parole if they would acknowledge their crimes. Rabinowitz and others, including their therapists, say the fact that they haven't done so lends believability to their claims of innocence.

"I would rather die in here than confess to something I didn't do," Violet Amirault told the Globe's Charlie Sennott. "They've taken everything away from us: our family, my business, my freedom. The one thing they won't get, the only thing we have left, is our innocence."

Anyone who's the parent of a four-year-old, or who knows a four- year-old, understands how difficult it can be for a young child to distinguish reality from fantasy. It's unsettling to think about three people sitting in prison because of the testimony of such a child, especially when there's no physical evidence to corroborate that testimony. That's why it's so important to listen to the parents' recollections of exactly how their kids came to disclose what had happened to them, of how their kids struggled to find words to describe acts they couldn't have possibly learned on TV, or in children's books, or while playing with their friends.

Karen remembers when she learned her son Tom (both names are pseudonyms) had been molested by Gerald Amirault. Tom attended Fells Acres when he was between the ages of three and five; he left a year and a half before the abuse charges hit the front pages. During those years, he exhibited strange behavior. "He'd start screaming all of a sudden about 'mmm-mmm' hurting him," Karen says.

Then, one day while he was in school, Karen says, he finally attached a name to it: "He blurted out, 'Tooky, mmm-mmm.'" At home, Karen gently nudged him. More details came out: something about "this purplish thing," and about being penetrated with a stick. He was obsessed with pants zippers, and would go into a panic if he saw one unzipped.

"It's total baloney that these kids were coerced," Karen says. "It all came from him, his own language, his own words, his own way. I wish my son could have testified, but I couldn't put him through it. I still have so much guilt for sending him there."

Karen also offers a pungent bit of media criticism that journalists would do well to keep in mind as they embark one more time upon this well-trod path: "I was just totally outraged to see them getting all this publicity again. They're sitting in a jail cell. But I have to go through this every day."